As South America's economic giant steps onto the global stage, its once distinctive soccer style is transforming too—from carefree and creative to sober and serious. Must beauty be sacrificed on the altar of progress?
This is an article from the May 24, 2010 issue
Meet Francisco Moraes. Sporting his customary baseball cap and the red-and-black jersey of his club team, Flamengo, his skin bronzed by years of bicycling around Rio de Janeiro, the 69-year-old Moraes may well be Brazil's most famous futebol fan. If the job description torcedor (Portuguese for "supporter") makes him sound like a swashbuckling adventurer, well, that's because he is one. Over the last 40 years Moraes has traveled to watch Brazil at every World Cup, from Mexico 1970 (with the Pelé-led outfit that is regarded as the greatest of all time) to USA 1994 ("the worst World Cup I went to, but we won!") to Germany 2006 ("the best players in the world, all Brazilians, and we didn't even make the semifinals").
"I have seen everything," says Moraes, who's on a first-name basis with the Brazilian greats—1980s star Zico hooks him up with tickets and signs jerseys to help fund his trips—and posts rollicking tales of his travels on his website, historiadetorcedor.com.br. But even he might not be prepared for what's happening to his beloved Brazil.
There's no avoiding the change that is afoot in the land of caipirinhas and capoeira. Police have embarked on a campaign to take back Rio's poor favelas from violent druglords. Construction cranes have popped up everywhere, and even the outstretched arms of Rio's iconic Christ statue are hidden behind scaffolding these days. A recent cover of The Economist shows an illustration of that statue launching like the space shuttle from Corcovado and proclaims BRAZIL TAKES OFF. Fueled by mass-scale ethanol production and the discovery of new deep-sea oil fields, Brazil is expected to pass Britain and France sometime within the next 15 years to become the world's fifth-largest economy. Goldman Sachs included the South American giant in its prediction of four economies—along with Russia, India and China—that will dominate the 21st century. When the country won the rights to host the 2014 World Cup and Rio was granted the 2016 Olympics, the first Games in South America, it was a symbolic confirmation that Brazil now has a place at the adult table in global affairs.
A country's soccer style often reflects the nation itself, and these days Brazil's famed Sele√ß√£o, the five-time World Cup champion, is more feared than loved. Coached by the taskmaster Dunga, a midfield enforcer from the 1994 Cup--winning team, Brazil is No. 1 in the latest FIFA World Ranking and a cofavorite with Spain to win the 2010 World Cup. But this is not your father's Brazil. This one plays with two holding midfielders. This one prefers defending and counterattacking to leading the charge. This one values power, speed and athleticism over midfield passing and dribbling, a collective team mentality over the individual brilliance that defined Brazil's past World Cup winners with magicians such as Garrincha, Romàrio and Ronaldo.
These days, if you're looking for the Beautiful Game of short passes and midfield maestros—o jogo bonito, as coined by Pelé himself—it's being played by Spain. "If we win this year, it's going to be the victory of the non-beautiful game: power, not technique," laments Marcos Motta, a Rio-based lawyer who represents several top players and clubs. "And that's a problem. In Brazil it's not just about winning. It's about how we win."
Style matters, in other words. But like everything else in Brazilian soccer, that notion is up for debate, a never-ending argument that rages in bars and houses and workplaces all over a soccer-addled country.
On a gorgeous April afternoon in Rio, Moraes gathered with two younger supporters, Bruno Melo and Thiago Vieira, both 28, over drinks at an open-air restaurant by the city's sprawling, placid urban lagoon. In the shadow of Sugarloaf they debated a matter of grave national importance: What is happening to the soul of Brazilian soccer? Does Brazil still play the Beautiful Game? And as the country gets serious, turning into a global economic powerhouse, is the Brazilian soccer team doing the same—and losing the romance and imagination that has captivated fans around the world?
SI:What do you think of the current Brazil team?
Vieira:Dunga has changed things. He plays with the counterattack. Brazil always used to attack the adversary. This is a problem for me. I don't like this.
Moraes: Soccer has changed. For me Brazil's best player is [midfielder] Kakà, but he doesn't play the Beautiful Game. In the World Cup the important thing is the result, not playing beautifully. We are going to win because we'll play for the victory.
Vieira: I don't agree. Spain plays the Beautiful Game and wins a lot. Three years and only one defeat! A lot of Spanish players have skills: Iniesta, Xavi, Fernando Torres.
Moraes: Spain isn't going to the quarterfinals. They play the Beautiful Game, but at the World Cup they never win. Even the United States beat them last year! Teams that play beautiful in the World Cup never win anymore. I'm used to the Beautiful Game with Zico and Pelé and Brazil, but that's over now.
Melo: But it's not necessarily that whoever plays beautifully loses and whoever plays ugly wins. That doesn't make sense!
Moraes: Do you know this word utopia? The Beautiful Game is a fantasy. Spain plays it, but they won't win. Brazil and Italy: That's ugly soccer, and they'll reach the semifinals. In one year we'll talk again, and I'll be right!
Before previous World Cups it was impossible to avoid the advertising campaigns in which players like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo showed off their vast array of tricks to a samba sound track on a South American beach. Now, under Dunga, the laid-back party vibe is gone. In Rio these days you'll see commercials for team sponsor Brahma beer celebrating the Brazilian players as guerreiros (warriors), including a laughable image of Dunga clad in a suit of armor, flashing a closed fist. "It's not about the Beautiful Game anymore," says Thiago Dias, who covers soccer for globoesporte.com. "Now they're like gladiators."
Part of the change comes down to personnel. For the first time since 1990 Brazil enters a World Cup without a player considered among the top three in the world—a trio that comprises Argentina's Lionel Messi, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and England's Wayne Rooney. Kakà ranks just behind, but his strength is in leading Brazil's whooshing counterattack, not in displaying the kind of mesmerizing ball skills Brazilian kids stereotypically learn in the favelas, the famed slums that produced the likes of Pelé and Ronaldo. (In fact, Kakà is the son of a wealthy Brasília engineer.) The closest thing Brazil has to one of its traditional soccer sorcerers is forward Robinho, but it's hard to build a promotional campaign around a player who's viewed in Europe as a selfish ball hog, one who washed out in England and had to return to the Brazilian league this season.
In many ways, too, the transformation of the Brazilian team is a direct response to its failure at the 2006 World Cup. That squad had an excess of individual firepower—reigning World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, alltime World Cup goal-scoring leader Ronaldo, plus Kakà, Robinho and forward Adriano—and was the runaway favorite to raise the trophy. But in the quarterfinals France upset Brazil 1--0, exposing an undisciplined Sele√ß√£o that was overweight (Ronaldo, Adriano) and more inclined to party than to practice (Ronaldinho, Robinho and others). "The preparation [at the pre--World Cup camp] in Switzerland was a circus," says Dias. "There were 10,000 people at the training sessions, and Ronaldinho acted like a clown with the ball for the fans. There were journalists and fans on the field hugging the players."
The Brazilian federation responded by hiring Dunga, a crew-cut disciplinarian who captained the '94 team, the first Brazilian champion that was unloved even by many of its own fans. In contrast to previous World Cups, when thousands of supporters (and even a brass band) attended the team's practices, next month in South Africa, Brazil's training sessions will be closed to the public. But even if fans are upset with Dunga's unromantic style, they readily concede that he wins. His guerreiros triumphed in the 2007 Copa América and the '09 Confederations Cup and finished atop South America's World Cup qualifying tournament.
"It was amazing that the results became more important than the Brazilian style of play," says Jefferson Rodrigues, a former editor for the Brazilian sports daily Lance. "People started to enjoy winning. Dunga was stressing teamwork, the kind of qualities that Brazilians never used to give much importance to."
Truth be told, Moraes thinks today's all-conquering warrior mentality is the logical endpoint of a process that started all the way back at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Among Brazilians that '82 squad—blessed with majestic Beautiful Gamers such as Zico, Sócrates and Leandro—was the purest example of the old Brazilian style, playing the sport like an aria. But that team fell to Italy 3--2 in the second round, and Brazilian soccer has never really been the same.
SI: Moraes, you were in the stadium in Barcelona when Brazil lost to Italy in 1982. What do you remember?
Moraes: It was the biggest disappointment of my life. The 1982 team was the best I ever saw. The 1970 team had the best player ever [Pelé], but the whole '82 team was better for the Beautiful Game. I was thinking if Brazil scored inside 20 minutes against Italy, we would score six goals in the game. But Italy went ahead, and finally there were no more goals. It was something from God. The worst time of my life.
Melo: Recently ESPN showed the game again here. This was my father's generation. I said to him, 'They're showing Brazil-Italy '82 on TV.' And he turned on the channel to watch it. I went to my room for a while, and when I went back later to see him, he was crying.
One day last month a group of 15 Brazilians calling themselves Art Lovers of Soccer paid to have billboards erected around Santos, the seaside city where Pelé once played and where a starlet named Neymar has rekindled the national fervor for the Beautiful Game. The signs were a last-minute appeal for Dunga to call up Neymar for the World Cup, though he's only 18 and has never played for the senior national team. "Now the streets are desperate to have Neymar, because they want to see the Beautiful Game," said Motta, the Rio lawyer. "They have the ugly squad, and they need the beautiful boy. If I'm Dunga, I would bring Neymar and Ronaldinho."
Such public campaigns in the final days before a major tournament are nothing new in Brazil. "In every World Cup the people lobby for players," says Dias. "In 2002 it was for Romàrio to go. In 2006 it was for Robinho to be in the starting lineup. Now it's Neymar. But I don't think he'll make it. Dunga knows that whether he wins or loses, everybody will talk about Neymar, so he wants to do it his way." Indeed: Dunga left both Neymar and Ronaldinho off his 23-man roster for South Africa.
Dunga's Way has turned Brazil from fun-loving samba entertainers into all-conquering, armor-clad warriors. If that style culminates in a victory in the final in Johannesburg on July 11 and a sixth World Cup championship for Brazil, the multitudes will celebrate from Copacabana Beach to the boardrooms of S√£o Paulo to the Amazon rain forest. Failure, on the other hand, will only add fuel to the national debate over what the term Brazilian means anymore.
Moraes: I'm telling you, this Brazil team plays ugly and wins ugly. We had only one good game in the  Confederations Cup, but we won the tournament. I was there. It would have been a world crisis if the U.S. had been champion. Dunga would have lost his underwear! But I just want to win, even if it's ugly.
Melo: But what is beautiful, and what is ugly? It is a very subjective concept.
Moraes: In 2006 Brazil had the best players in the world but didn't go to the semifinals. Is that beautiful? Not winning?
Vieira: You can bring players with talent. But not overweight players!
Moraes: What do you prefer? This horrible team as champion of the world, or do you want to take Neymar and Ronaldinho and not win anything? I want to win!
Vieira: I want to win too. But with style!
Moraes: If we play beautifully and win, I'll kiss you on the mouth.
Vieira: This is not necessary. Not necessary!
With that, Francisco Moraes laughed, said his goodbyes and bicycled off into the Rio sunset, past the scaffolding and the construction cranes. His country and his team may be getting serious, but Brazil's most famous fan doesn't have to follow suit.